“Holy Sense of Humor”

Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 23:1-12

First Presbyterian Church

The Reverend Donald E. Ray

March 16, 2008

Passion/Palm Sunday

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I really don’t have this retirement thing figured out.  One of the rules I’ve been told is; learn to say “NO.”  I not only haven’t figured that out, I say “Yes” before I’m even asked.

Gratified with the success of “Five Poems for Lent,” Tom said a few weeks ago he had been thinking about “Four Poems for Holy Week,” asking if that would work for me since I was scheduled for Holy Thursday.  I said, “Sure, I could do that.”  I don’t know what I was thinking.  Then, he acknowledged the problem would be that he would have three poems to do. Always ready to help a friend and colleague, I volunteered I could take Palm Sunday also, making it two each.

Now really, what was I thinking??  I, never having written more than a few silly, rhyming limericks in all my days, now had two poems to write in a month.  My saving grace was a trip to the Adirondacks —the beauty of snow covered mountains and a vivacious little granddaughter were inspiration, not of the poem but for the poet-to-be.  Also in my favor is that not having composed a poem, therefore not knowing what one is doing, I really can’t tell if I’m crashing and burning.

It’s been said that a poem isn’t a poem until it is read, which I assume implies heard; here is my effort.

 

               "At the Passion Play"

 

Hosanna, Hosanna, cheers the crowd by the path

    Praise to you, Son of David, they cry;

Palm fronds they spread on the road,

   Even their robes they lay o’er the dust.

        Someone of note must be on the way!

 

Please save! Hosanna! Save us now!

    Come warrior to release us from slavery. 

A white steed must signal the bravery,

   With regal robes flying as they gallop by;

       A one so acclaimed this day!

 

But who is this who comes riding an ass,

    Who jostles and bounces as he doth pass?

Who so intrudes on their cries of praise?

    Who mocks the crowd as they palm branches wave?

         Let him be gone—make way.

 

Hosanna! Ho Ho Hosanna Ho Ho Ho;

    Hosanna! Ho Ho Hosanna! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

Praise dissolves in laughter unrestrained;

    Cheers turn to guffaws at this parody of reign.

         Hilarity erupts at such vision this day.

 

It is the Lord! ‘Tis the Son of David!

   Royal trappings doth he disdain.

He mocks the pomp, pushes title aside;

  A donkey as mount he chooses to ride.

       Kin would he be with those ‘long the way.

 

Their laughter he prizes for laughter they need.

    Body and mind in laughter made whole;

Humor as balm for the health of the soul;

    The sham of pomp he would have us see.

          An ass he doth ride, he will any day.

                                              

                                                  Don Ray,

                                          Palm Sunday, 2008

 

 

The inspiration for this poem is a Passion Play performed by a church near my home in Pennsylvania since 1963.  The set is a 1,000 seat outdoor amphitheater constructed especially for that purpose.  The selection of scenes from Jesus’ life including the death of Lazarus, and its scripting in King James English make watching the performance a somber experience.  When the production reaches the Holy Week scenes, knowing the crucifixion will soon be dramatized, it becomes even more intense.

Then, a grown man appears from a grove of trees, bouncing and jostling on the back of a donkey.  I have seen the play four or five times, I can picture that scene in my mind now, and never have I been able to restrain my laughter.

I often find myself wondering why a particular story is included in a Gospel.  John affirms that were everything about Jesus written, no library could contain the books.  So why out of all that material, did the writer or writers choose to include any given tale.  I assume the selection was purposeful so then I guess, sometimes stretching the imagination, as to what that purpose might have been.

Palm Sunday is a travesty.  Jesus riding a donkey is a laughable image.  Matthew even describes it as his riding both the ass and its colt.  I and many are still puzzling that picture.  Crowds that day shouted praises—within the week they called for Jesus’ execution.  Why is its story included?

Surely, there are a number of possible reasons but one I think is that in God, there is a sense of humor.  Not the kind of humor that disrespects nor takes advantage of tragic errors, but the kind that strikes us as humorous because it disrupts our expectations.  Then it sets us up for a different way of looking at things.

The setting of this story is a tense time in Jerusalem .  Passover meant crowds of people.  Being an occupied country, insurgents always ready to claim ties to the Messiah prediction, took advantage of the crowds to incite rebellion.  The Roman Guard was on the alert.  The Jews were pumped.  And Jesus rides down the road like a sack of figs on the back of an ass.

Because of my experience working in health care, I am not a fan of hospital dramas. But one of my favorite movies is “Patch Adams.” A medical student interning under the tutelage of a stern, egotistical senior physician, Patch is concerned that patients are losing their identity behind case diagnoses and treatment plans.

Patch does a Jesus thing.  He begins visiting children in the cancer wing wearing a red sponge clown nose; he skates into the ward with his feet in bedpans; he blows up rubber gloves to make funny balloon caricatures.  Forlorn children begin to laugh, curmudgeon patients and staff smile and are more congenial, and people get better or at the least deal better with being sick.

Under the threat of censure, Patch continues because he sees the difference it makes in the people he cares for.  Unable to make much change in the system and at increasing odds with his professor, Patch recruits a few of his colleagues and puts his career on the line by opening a clinic where they can care for the persons whose needs are not met in traditional health care delivery.  When a beloved fellow student is murdered by a deranged patient, Patch is devastated and drops out of his dream.  But by this time, his colleagues are so hooked that they rally to support him through his grief and they challenge Patch until he is recaptured by his vision and returns to the clinic.

With the comical image of Jesus bouncing along on a donkey fresh in our minds, Matthew tells us of Jesus taking the Pharisees to task for making faith harder than it ought to be; for taking them selves too seriously doing deeds for image; wearing their phylacteries broad and their fringes long; claiming the best seats in their gatherings, demanding to be addressed with impressive titles.

This past Thursday in our “Aging and Sagging” group; I call it “aging and sagging” because if think I am “saging,”  getting wiser, I risk becoming a little too pompous.  Back to my point; in this week’s chapter of Martin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching we read;

 

“Seeking to look attractive creates blindness.

Seeking to sound impressive creates deafness.

Seeking to please all creates tastelessness.

Seeking to control creates thoughtlessness.

Seeking to protect dreams creates heartlessness.”   (1)

 

I recognize that there are portions of the Gospels that bear the mark of the later church in their writing.  There are some parts that may have little if any basis in actual events in Jesus life or his speaking.  But the story of him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey I think is credible.  Otherwise, why would his friends include this, by most any cultural standard, laughable, even humiliating image.

If Jesus rode into the seat of power on a donkey, maybe it’s the way to go.  Perhaps Matthew is telling us that Jesus rode the donkey and he brought the colt along as an invitation for others to ride with him.  In the realm of religion, education, social circles, politics, business, world affairs; when things became tense, if someone let their ego deflate a little and regained a sense of humor, what difference it might make in a volatile situation.  I am not for a moment suggesting that we make fun of one’s adversaries or be insensitive to the gravity of a serious situation.  Jesus put himself on the line, made himself the object of laughter to diffuse a potentially dangerous situation by creating a whole different way of looking at leadership.  Jesus was saying I’d rather have a good laugh with the people, even if it means dying on a cross, than die on the point of a Roman spear to perpetuate fighting and warring.

Palm Sunday is the church’s story.  Our history is far too cluttered with broad phylacteries and long fringes, stilted titles and creating heavy burdens.  To be at the crossroads of Christ and community, today is the day for a donkey ride.  It’s time to be laughed at, and to laugh with as we dismount from the self-conscious image of our culture, to ride in the love, joy and peace that is trusting in God.

In words we will savor again in a moment:

“Ride on in triumph; Lord, behold we lay our passions, lusts, and proud wills in Thy way!”  (2)

 I’d like to think there was enough wisdom and sensitivity on the part of the church Fathers to realize that between the somber forty plus days of Lent and remembering the agony of Good Friday, we need to laugh.  As we picture Jesus riding a donkey, we can laugh as we see how all the pomp and circumstance of our culture falls short of one who restores our humanity by sharing in our burdens.

If we don’t take Palm Sunday too seriously; if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we can get God’s sense of humor.  I considered hiring a donkey and riding it up the aisle in the procession this morning, but fortunately that momentary insanity passed.  Besides, that would be unfair since the poem should be adequate to stir the image in your mind.

Amid the Palms today, can you picture Jesus?

An ass he doth ride, he will any day.

Amen.

  (1)      “The Art of Pastoring—Contemplative Reflection”  by William C. Martin

(2)      “Draw Nigh to Jerusalem   by David H. Williams

 

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